Chapter 12: Verb Tense

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify the purpose of verbs
  • Explain why maintaining a consistent verb tense is important
  • Explain how using the active voice and avoiding nominalizations can make your writing more direct.

Key Terms and Concepts

  • verb tense
  • simple present
  • simple past
  • simple future
  • active voice
  • passive voice
  • nominalization

All starting writers struggle with . More specifically, they tend to struggle with keeping the tenses consistent, especially in long documents.

If you’ve ever received feedback from a professor like “inconsistent tense” or “passive voice” then it generally means something is wrong with your verbs. It’s important to fix this issue because keeping verb tenses consistent will ensure your audience knows whether an event happened in the past, present, or future.

In this chapter, we will briefly review , discuss different verb tenses, and finish off by discussing how to avoid the and .

The Basics

Verbs do two things. First, they are the action of the sentence. They tell the reader what sort of action you, someone, or something, did.

I walked to the store.

In the above example, the verb “walked” tells the reader what kind of action brought you to the store. We know the person didn’t run, skip, or saunter to the store: they walked.

The second thing verbs do is tell the audience when something happened. This is where verb tenses come in. In the same example, “walked” is in the past tense so we know the event happened in the past. There are three main tenses: present, past, and future. However, within those three tenses are several more.

 

That is certainly a lot of verb tenses, but, thankfully, you will not have to use all of them in professional communication. In fact, you will mostly be using , and . The issue that most people run into, though, is being consistent with their verb tenses.

Maintaining Consistent Verb Tense

Consistent verb tense means the same verb tense is used throughout a sentence or a paragraph. As you write and revise, make sure you use the same verb tense consistently and avoid shifting from one tense to another unless there is a good reason for it.

Let’s look at an example. In the following box, can you see how the tense is inconsistent?

We will submit the report after I finished my section.

There are two different verb tenses being used here: simple future (will submit) and simple past (finished). Let’s fix this problem by keeping the tenses consistent.

Simple Future: We will submit the report after I finish my section
Simple Past: We submitted the report after I finished my section

As you can see, there are two ways to fix this program. While both are now grammatically correct, the one you use will depend on what information you are trying to convey.

Exercise #1: Pick the Inconsistent Verb Tense

Read the sentences below. Pick the one that uses inconsistent verb tense.

Now, in some cases, clear communication will call for different tenses. Look at the following example:

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a firefighter, but now I am studying computer science.

In the above example, the writer talks about a past desire and their present situation. Whenever the time frame for each action or state is different, a tense shift is appropriate.

Exercise #2: Identify the Incorrect Verb Choice

Read the email below for incorrect verb tenses. Click all the verbs that use the wrong tense.

The inconsistent tense in the e-mail will very likely distract the reader from its overall point. In the professional world,  your coworkers will most likely not correct your verb tenses or call attention to grammatical errors, but it is important to keep in mind that these errors do have a subtle negative impact in the workplace, just as they do when applying for jobs and communicating with clients. If you keep making small mistakes like this, the receiver of your message may assume you do not pay attention to little details.


Simplifying Verbs

Another issue that writers have is overcomplicating their verbs with extra words. In almost every instance, if you realize you can simplify your writing by taking out words, that is the best option. In regards to verbs, the issue typically stems from writers using and in their writing.

Active Voice and Passive Voice

Even when writers have consistent verb tenses, they often overcomplicate their writing by expressing the action in as many words as possible. One way they do this is by using the passive voice. Consider the following sentences, for instance. Which would you prefer to read?

PASSIVE VOICE

The candidate cannot be supported by our membership.

ACTIVE VOICE

Our members cannot support the candidate.

Most readers would prefer the second option. Why? Here, the construction on the right uses two fewer words to say the same thing. As a result, it is more direct than the passive voice construction. How does it do that?

First, let’s define the two terms. Active voice is a sentence structure where the subject carries out the action. Passive voice is a sentence structure where the subject receives the action.

Essentially, it all comes down to the and . Who is the subject of the passive voice sentence? It’s not “the candidate” because the action of the sentence is not being done by them. The subject is “our membership”  because they are the ones doing the supporting.

In the active voice sentence, “members” has been moved to the start of the sentence. It is clear that they are doing the action.

Both sentences are valid grammatically. You could use either format in your writing, and the reader would understand what you are saying. However, the active voice is generally the better one to use since active sentences tend to be shorter, more precise, and easier to understand.

There are legitimate uses of the passive voice though. When you want to deemphasize the doer of the action, passive voice is a good choice. Look at the example below.

Ten late arrivals were recorded this month

In this example, the passive voice above doesn’t place blame or credit, so it can be more diplomatic in some contexts. Passive voice also allows the writer to avoid personal references or personal pronouns (he, she, they) to create a more objective tone. Additionally, there are situations where the doer of the action is unknown, as in the following example.

Graffiti was painted on the side of our building last night.

We don’t know who created the graffiti, so a passive form is useful here.

However, keep in mind that overusing the passive voice sounds unnatural and appears as an attempt to extend the word count or sound more fancy and objective. Most readers prefer the active voice because the passive voice is either more wordy or vague. Nevertheless, it is important to consider what is conventional in the type of writing you’re engaging in—for instance, certain disciplines require that lab reports use the passive voice.


Nominalization

Another issue that overcomplicates writing is when writers turn the main action they describe into nouns, a process called . This involves taking a verb and adding a suffix such as -ant, -ent, -ion, -tion, -sion, -ence, -ance, or -ing, as well as adding forms of other verbs, such as “to make” or “to give.” Nominalization may also require articles (thea, or an) before the action nouns. Consider the following comparisons of nominalized-verb sentences with simplified verb forms:

NOMINALIZED FORM

The committee had a discussion about the new budget constraints.

SIMPLIFIED FORM

The committee discussed the new budget constraints.

We will make a recommendation to proceed with the investment option. We will recommend proceeding with the investment option.
They handed down a judgment that the offer wasn’t worth their time. They judged that the offer wasn’t worth their time.
The regulator will grant approval of the new process within the week. The regulator will approve the new process within the week.
He always gives me advice on what to say to the media. He always advises me on what to say to the media.
She’s giving your application a pass because of all the errors in it. She’s passing on your application because of all the errors in it.

You can tell that the simplified sentences have greater impact than those that use nominalizations. In all of the nominalization examples, more words are required to say the same thing. When writing contains all three issues we’ve discussed (inconsistent verb tense, passive voice, and nominalizations), it becomes muddled and lacks the clarity that is expected in professional writing

Exercise #3: Identify the Verb Issue and Simplify

Read the sentences below. Determine whether there is an issue with the passive voice or nominalizations. Then, try to simplify the sentence. Please note that our solution is just one possible solution. If yours doesn’t match, it could still be correct. Check with your instructor if you’re not sure.

Key Takeaways

  • helps you express when an event takes place.
  • Maintaining consistency among verb tenses  in your writing will ensure your communication is clear. While there are twelve different tenses in English, the three you will be using the most are , and .
  • A more direct style of writing is almost always preferable. Therefore, it is often to best to avoid the and .

 

Now that you are finished you can either click on one of the other sentence-level issues and learn about them, or continue to the next part of the chapter on quoting.

References

Grammarly. (2021, January 14). Verb tenses. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/verb-tenses/

Attributions

This chapter is adapted from Business Communications for Fashion by Anna Cappuccitti (on openpress.usask.ca). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This chapter is also adapted from Business Communication for Success by the University of Minnesota (on University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

License

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Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach Copyright © 2021 by Rebekah Bennetch; Corey Owen; and Zachary Keesey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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